Tennyson Street School: gladiator

Gladiator: (n) in ancient Rome, a man trained to fight with weapons against other men or wild animals in an arena

Violet nibbled her goldfish crackers with long, slender fingers, trying to follow along in her book, while Javier periodically whacked Alejandro on the head. Supposedly friends, Javier struggled to allow Alejandro to read to the group, drumming on the table, drumming on Alejandro’s arm, and talking over his reading.

“Javier.” I’d tried tapping his book to divert his attention. I’d tried shaking my head, putting a finger to my lips, redirecting attention toward Alejandro, giving looks. I’d asked him to “make a different choice,” which he had ignored.

“Hands – to – yourself.”

He only escalated. He talked louder. Then he began singing – until, confused, Alejandro stopped reading, looking up at Javier dancing and singing in our tiny cubicle and wanting to smile and join in…but he wasn’t feeling it.

“Javier – if you can’t be respectful in Lab, I’ll have to talk with your teacher about whether or not you can be here with us.”

He ignored me. Alejandro looked back and forth between us, holding his open book with both hands.

“Javier, I need you to stop, or we’re done.”

Zero response.

“Okay – we’re done. Pack up, guys.”

“What? Lab is done?” Violet was incredulous.

“I can’t teach this way. Let’s go.” I stood up, waiting for them to join me. “Alejandro, I’m sorry, I wanted to hear you read. Next time.”

After reassurance, Violet hurried off to her playground mediation job with the younger kids at recess. Javier had bolted back to class, so I walked slowly with Alejandro. “You just keep focusing on what you need to do, for yourself, for your own reading. You’re doing great; keep it up.”

He looked up at me long enough to ask his deepest concern: “Will we still get stickers?”

“Of course. You remind me. We’ll put them on your treasure maps tomorrow.”

Stickers. I’d heard Alejandro liked to act the bruiser himself, posturing at lunch and recess, talking tough. I hadn’t seen it yet, and hoped he would decide to be his own man and not just follow bad behavior down a long, dark tunnel. I doubted I could bandaid this child’s fragile self-esteem with stickers for long.

Oh, Javier. How to discipline a child who refuses to recognize any authority? How to connect with a child who pretends he doesn’t care about anything?

At lunch duty, I meandered through the lunchroom nodding at kids who wanted to go get their milk, or a drink of water, or just go to the bathroom. But in my mind’s eye, I was looking in a mirror, back 45 years, to a kid who scoffed at adults in “authority” – because what had authority ever done for me? It hadn’t kept me safe, hadn’t heard my cries for help, and hadn’t been remotely smart enough to pick up what I was laying down as clearly as a kid can and still survive the horrible experiences that some kids go through.

I thought about Javier’s Lab dance, superimposing him into the movie “Gladiator” and hearing him as Russell Crowe’s character Maximus bellowing, “Are you not ENTERTAINED?!”

The lunchroom floor was sticky with trails and splashes of red juice from canned strawberries.

I let myself imagine the Roman Coliseum, the roaring, incoherent crowd, the dirt arena fouled with all manner of body fluids and gore, the hot sun beating down on fighters soaked in sweat and blood and fear – and rage.

I walked over to a little girl with her hand raised who asked if she could clean up and put away her tray now. I didn’t know her name. So many of them were still anonymous to me. I let myself remember being an unheard child. I had felt unknown. I pushed my memory to rekindle the horror and fury of hopelessness, a fury that fueled unnatural strength and fearlessness. I didn’t care what anyone said to me, did to me. I raged like a fire, and burned everyone around me. I didn’t care if I burned your world to the ground.

For the first lunch, I had devised a plan with the other para’s – divide and conquer. Three teachers’ classes, second and third graders, all ate together, piling onto the tables not taken by the ECE preschoolers. The chaotic scene was only somewhat improved since Miranda’s last lunch duty. I had talked each of the para’s into taking a class, once finished with lunch, herding them to a different corner of the lunchroom to line up and wait for their teacher.

I could see the para’s struggling to maintain focus on dividing the kids into manageable groups. Other children called for attention, whether by throwing food at each other or pushing each other or wanting to read a joke to them from the side of their small milk carton. Yet each week, a faint but strengthening core of ordered expectation was growing as the kids started to remember our new drill.

I stationed myself near the doors, calling out the class names and directing traffic toward the corners with my extended arms. “Ms. Rachel’s class,” I motioned, “Ms. Holly’s class,” the other side, “and Ms. Lauren’s class.” The final corner. “Ms, Rachel’s class, Ms. Holly’s class, and Ms. Lauren’s class.” Over and over, I moved slowly like a windmill, slowly grinding the rebellion out of the room as we split their ranks and gained control. Then one by one, the teachers appeared and led their classes from the food fight arena.

We like the kids with spunk. Spunk is rebellion made palatable to the masses. We enjoy their sweet-edged naughtiness, their self-limited pushback, the way they’re ultimately seeking a balance between autonomy and approval. We like them in the school arena because we know that these little gladiators are going to ultimately fall when pressed with the swordpoint of authority. Spunky kids are easy, pleasers in pretend armor who help us believe we aren’t destroying their spirits by teaching them to behave.

“Get in line,” I heard myself saying with no small degree of disbelief at the end of second lunch. “If you can get in line, I can dismiss you for recess.” If you will just fall into line, I can allow you to go release your frustrations and pent-up energy. But only for a very limited amount of time. And only in school-sanctioned forms of play. Which you need to accept without giving any of us any attitude.

Javier was ready to read at the end of the day when I stopped by his classroom. We walked down the hall together.

“We need to talk for a minute about how Lab went today. I want to understand how you were feeling, what you were thinking.” I looked at him and just waited.

“I didn’t want to read that easy book.”

“Yes, I got that.” I looked at him a second. “What were you feeling?”

Javier concentrated hard on this one, before saying very openly, “I don’t know. I didn’t want to read the book, but…I don’t know what I was feeling.”

Just then, a girl he knew saw us heading toward the Lab. “Javier, do you go to Literacy Lab?” she scoffed.


“Yes you do! You go to Literacy Fellows!”

“No I don’t!”

We sat in our cozy seats for our reading time. Javier shook his hair back, as if trying to settle his mind.

“Do you think,” I asked tentatively, “that you might have been feeling…embarrassed?”

“I don’t know, maybe.” He looked around. A couple kids I didn’t recognize walked by in the hall. “No, I wasn’t embarrassed. I wasn’t anything.”

“That’s fair.” He flapped his book back and forth against the chair. “Javier, have you ever heard the term, ‘pick your battles’?”

And so at the end of the day, we talked about what you would fight and die for, and what you really would not, and how to start recognizing the difference. That there is a difference. That you don’t have to come out like a gladiator, fighting to the death, every time.

And then we read “I Survived Pompeii,” totally relaxed, reading about impending disaster side by side in our cozy reading chairs.